Suzanne Alfano, Executive Director, Canadian Fire Alarm Association

In the realm of fire safety and alarm systems, few individuals have made a lasting impact, quite like Suzanne Alfano, the Executive Director of the Canadian Fire Alarm Association (CFAA). With an extensive background in electrical engineering technology and a Master’s degree in Business Administration, Suzanne has dedicated over 35 years of her career to the non-profit sector, emerging as a leading figure in technical management, consulting, and advocacy roles. “I was first introduced to the fire and life safety industry during my tenure with the National Electrical Manufacturers’ Association (NEMA) in Washington, DC. I then returned to Canada in 2020 to take on the role of Executive Director with the Canadian Fire Alarm Association. I feel privileged to lead an Association involved in fire protection and life safety,” shares Suzanne.

Suzanne’s career has been defined by her commitment to improving safety codes and standards. Her advocacy work and leadership roles in various associations have shaped the industry. She tirelessly promotes legislative requirements that support industry and public safety, earning her respect as a trusted voice. At the CFAA, Suzanne leads the mission to maximize the effectiveness of fire alarm systems in Canada. Her visionary approach and collaboration with key stakeholders drive innovation and elevate fire safety standards. Under her guidance, the CFAA has become a driving force in the field.

“At CFAA, I am responsible for creating business plans, overseeing day-to-day activities, improving the Association’s overall performance, advocating on the interests of members with various stakeholder groups, supervising staff, financial management, and directing organizational strategy,” explains Suzanne. Beyond her professional accomplishments, Suzanne’s infectious enthusiasm and dedication have inspired countless individuals in the field. She serves as a mentor and role model, empowering aspiring professionals to make a difference and contribute to the industry’s growth. Suzanne’s passion for safety is contagious, and her ability to rally stakeholders around a shared vision has yielded transformative results.

Protecting the Life and Property in Canada

Ensuring the safety and security of life and property is at the forefront of the Canadian Fire Alarm Association’s (CFAA) mission. Since its inception in 1973, this esteemed not-for-profit organization, founded by industry experts, has been dedicated to this noble cause. Today, boasting a membership of over 400 organizations and encompassing nine Chapters across the country, the CFAA stands as a pivotal force in maximizing the effectiveness and utilization of fire alarm systems in safeguarding both life and property. With a primary focus on education, training, and support for more than 3,500 registered fire alarm technicians nationwide, the CFAA strives to be the definitive national resource for all things fire alarm-related in Canada.

“Our members play integral roles in the design, manufacturing, installation, testing, inspection, monitoring and maintenance of fire protection systems throughout the country. Our core objective is to ensure that fire alarm systems are optimized to their fullest potential in protecting life and property, placing fire safety as a paramount concern in our nation,” emphasizes Suzanne, speaking on behalf of the CFAA. Fire alarm systems have become indispensable in almost every building across Canada, be it commercial establishments, institutional structures, or the multitude of dwellings spanning the nation. They serve as crucial mechanisms for promptly alerting occupants, building owners, and fire departments during fire emergencies, facilitating timely response, and minimizing potential deaths, injuries and property damage.

Suzanne also sheds light on the evolution of fire alarm systems over time. “As fire alarm systems have advanced, Canada’s National Fire Code, established in 1963, mandated the upkeep of life safety systems and occupant evacuation training during emergencies,” she shares. The introduction of addressable fire alarm systems in the 1980s revolutionized the field, offering improved technology and enhanced reliability by precisely identifying fire locations through interconnected devices and with remote monitoring. Residential smoke alarms have likewise witnessed significant advancements, incorporating interconnectivity features and refined sensing technology to help mitigate false alarms. Suzanne elaborates, “New smoke alarms can now offer seamless interconnectivity throughout your home, capable of sending alerts directly to your cell phone and service providers that monitor your system remotely and can notify the fire department in the event of a fire. They also employ cutting-edge smoke sensing technology, ensuring greater precision in detecting real threats while minimizing false alarms.”

Through its unwavering commitment to excellence and innovation, the CFAA plays an instrumental role in shaping and upholding fire safety standards across the nation. By fostering collaboration, disseminating knowledge, and advocating for the continual improvement of fire alarm systems, the Association reinforces its position as a trusted leader in the field, dedicated to safeguarding the well-being of Canadians and their valued assets.

Embracing the Digital Era

Before Suzanne took the helm as Executive Director, CFAA heavily relied on in-person training events and meetings throughout Canada. However, when the pandemic hit, the organization swiftly recognized the need to undergo a rapid digital transformation. Suzanne reflects on this pivotal moment: “One of our most significant achievements has been successfully transitioning our operations to the digital realm. I joined the CFAA in January 2020, just before the pandemic unfolded.”

Under Suzanne’s visionary leadership, the CFAA revitalized its online core courses and exams, introducing new and engaging online continuing education training content. This proactive approach ensured that the Association could adapt to the changing circumstances while continuing to provide essential training opportunities for fire alarm technicians, fire authorities, building owners, property managers, engineering firms, insurance companies, and other stakeholders.

However, the CFAA’s digital transformation extended far beyond training alone. In 2021, they unveiled a brand-new website and a customized customer relationship management (CRM) system meticulously designed to enhance the user experience and streamline operations. This investment in digital infrastructure proved invaluable in their mission to better serve their members and the wider fire safety community. Suzanne proudly states, “In 2022, we witnessed tremendous engagement, with participants logging over 18,000 hours of CFAA Continuing Education training.” Moreover, introducing hybrid events, offering the flexibility for attendees to choose between in-person and online participation, further amplified engagement and accessibility.

By wholeheartedly embracing the digital era, the CFAA successfully navigated through challenging times, emerging with renewed strength and resilience. Their unwavering commitment to innovation and adaptability ensures that the Association remains at the forefront of the fire alarm industry, continuously providing invaluable resources and training to promote safety and excellence across Canada. Suzanne and the entire CFAA team are beacons of progress, tirelessly working to uphold the Association’s mission despite adversity.

Driving CFAA’s Growth

Over the past two years, the Canadian Fire Alarm Association (CFAA) has actively engaged stakeholders in shaping its strategic direction and refining its technical training programs. Through a variety of means, including stakeholder surveys, interviews, and feedback from key industry players such as fire alarm equipment manufacturers, service companies, technicians, fire authorities, engineering firms, and building owner/operators, the CFAA is updating their Strategic Plan and tailored training initiatives that address the evolving needs of the industry.

Suzanne highlights the crucial collaboration between the CFAA and fire authorities, emphasizing that they consult extensively with these entities to ensure that the content and requirements of the CFAA Fire Alarm Technology Program align with industry demands. This program, which has been in place for over four decades, stands as the sole national initiative in Canada focused on training and registering fire alarm technicians to work on fire alarm systems. By actively involving fire authorities in the development and review process, the CFAA ensures that its training programs remain up-to-date and in accordance with industry standards.

To oversee the Association’s governance, a dedicated Board of Directors, comprising 40 esteemed members representing diverse expertise from the fire protection industry, plays a pivotal role. These directors serve on various committees, bringing invaluable knowledge and experience to the table. Their voluntary service is instrumental in keeping the CFAA attuned to emerging trends and technologies, ultimately enabling the Association to maintain its status as an industry leader.

Furthermore, Suzanne personally attends fire safety conferences in North America, recognizing the immense value of expanding her own knowledge and network. These conferences provide unparalleled opportunities for learning, staying informed about the latest industry developments, and fostering connections with fellow professionals. The insights gained from these events further enrich the CFAA’s ability to provide top-notch resources and training to the fire safety community in Canada, ensuring that they remain at the forefront of industry advancements.

By actively engaging with stakeholders, leveraging the expertise of their Board of Directors, and staying abreast of industry trends through conference attendance, the CFAA continues to strengthen its position as a leading authority in fire alarm systems and technical training. Their commitment to collaboration, constant learning, and knowledge sharing ensures that the Association remains agile, responsive, and effective in meeting the evolving needs of the fire protection industry in Canada.

Navigating Gender Challenges in a Male-Dominated Industry

Being a woman leader in a traditionally male-dominated industry presents its own set of challenges, although the landscape is gradually evolving as women gain more equity in the workplace. “I consider myself fortunate to have begun my career with a progressive Canadian Non-Profit Association that prioritized womens’ equality in the workplace. Working there for twenty years during my early twenties shaped my attitude, values, and confidence as a woman leader,” shares Suzanne, highlighting the positive impact of her early experiences.

Throughout her professional path, Suzanne has worked with strong women leaders who served as mentors. She says, “Their mentorship has played a vital role in my professional growth.” She also acknowledges the support of exceptional male mentors, recognizing that mentorship from both women and men has been instrumental in her development.

Recalling a challenging incident of sexual harassment, she faced years ago, Suzanne shares her courageous response, stating, “I took the brave step of reporting the harassment to my employer, who took my complaints seriously and conducted a thorough investigation. The individual responsible was ultimately terminated.” She expresses immense respect for the woman president of the company who stood by her and made the difficult but necessary decision, acknowledging the rarity of such decisive action against sexual harassment at the time.

Despite the challenges, Suzanne remains optimistic about the progress made in promoting gender equality within the industry. She highlights the growing awareness and commitment to address gender disparities, stating, “We are seeing positive changes that are enabling more women to pursue leadership roles and contribute their unique perspectives.” Suzanne’s dedication to supporting and empowering other women in the industry reflects her commitment to ensuring equal opportunities for all.

Creating Effective Collaborations and Adapting to Unforeseen Challenges

Suzanne believes that the best decisions are made through consultation with stakeholders and staff. Reflecting on her leadership style, Suzanne shares, “I am a collaborative and inclusive leader, and I firmly believe that the input of stakeholders is invaluable. We are at our best when we serve their needs versus our own.”

With over 35 years of experience working for Non-Profit Associations, Suzanne’s journey has shaped her values and approach to leadership. She explains, “As association leaders, we are taught and expected to value the input of others. It is through this collective effort that we can make meaningful progress and serve our members effectively.”

Honesty, hard work, respect, and kindness are the guiding principles that Suzanne values. She emphasizes the significance of kindness in the workplace, stating, “Kindness may seem underrated, but it can go a long way towards achieving company goals, fostering happy employees, and nurturing a thriving membership.”

Navigating the challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic proved to be one of the toughest experiences for Suzanne. Recalling those times, she shares, “I was only two months into this new role as Executive Director when Covid hit and changed almost all operations within the Association.” The situation demanded swift action, with the office closing and the staff transitioning to remote work. Suzanne faced the challenge head-on: “We had to develop contingency plans and flip all our meetings and events online. Despite limited prior online capabilities, we were determined to keep our events going and provide uninterrupted service to our members.”

Amidst the uncertainty, Suzanne’s leadership and dedication shone through. She proudly states, “I am proud to say that we never canceled one event; in fact, we offered even more events. Our online training has been a huge success, resulting in an almost 30% increase in Association revenue since 2020.” These achievements were made possible by the collective efforts and resilience of Suzanne’s team and our volunteers, as she acknowledges, “It was a true team effort, and I am grateful for the commitment and adaptability demonstrated by our staff and dedicated volunteers.”

Suzanne believes in the power of collaboration, adaptability, and personal growth. She advises aspiring leaders, “Invest in yourself. Develop and nurture your confidence as a leader. Never stop learning.”

Suzanne encourages embracing new opportunities and challenges, saying “yes” to projects that push you out of your comfort zone. She also emphasizes the importance of finding mentors and seeking guidance from those you admire in your field.

Advancing Fire Protection and Life Safety

As the Canadian Fire Alarm Association (CFAA) celebrates its 50th anniversary, Suzanne expresses her excitement for the future. Recognizing the opportunities and challenges ahead, Suzanne shares her vision: “I am excited about the future of the CFFA and our fire protection and life safety industry.”

With a commitment to keeping Canadians safe, the CFAA aims to make a difference in reducing deaths, injuries, and property damage across the country. Advocacy plays a crucial role in achieving this goal. Suzanne affirms, “We will continue to advocate for the effective use of fire alarm systems for the protection of life and property.” Among their goals, the CFAA aims to attain accreditation for the CFAA Fire Alarm Technology Program to certify fire alarm technicians by the Standards Council of Canada. This recognition will further enhance the program’s credibility and ensure its alignment with industry standards.

Another focus is developing a tiered certification program that acknowledges the education and experience of fire alarm technicians as they progress in their careers. By recognizing and promoting their expertise, the CFAA aims to elevate professionalism and competence within the industry.

Addressing the shortage of qualified technicians is a pressing concern for the CFAA. They are actively working to bridge this gap and ensure a sufficient workforce throughout Canada to meet the fire protection and life safety needs of communities. Furthermore, the CFAA advocates for harmonizing and timely adoption of the latest National Building and Fire Codes by all provinces and territories. This effort aims to enhance fire and life safety outcomes, creating a standardized framework that promotes consistency and best practices nationwide.

As the CFAA looks towards the future, Suzanne and her team are dedicated to advancing fire protection and life safety in Canada. By pursuing accreditation, developing a tiered certification program, addressing workforce shortages, and advocating for code harmonization, they are committed to making a positive impact and safeguarding the well-being of Canadians.

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